The poisonous influence of the right-wing social media can in part be measured by the attention it gives to a host of far right extremists who trade in hate-filled, deplorable and dehumanizing references, and analogies designed to turn politics into shock theater. The most recent example can be seen in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s outrageous attempt to suggest that requiring people to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is tantamount to the Nazis requiring millions of Jews to wear fabric stars during the Holocaust. This is just the latest example of the current right-wing assault on truth, history and the public imagination. Of course, Greene is only one of many right-wing shock troops that are fueling the conditions moving the United States into a fascist politics. The power of the corporate and right-wing media gives new meaning to the notion that politics follows culture, especially given the current attacks being waged on social, racial and economic justice.
The war to destroy the public imagination is now waged on many fronts, particularly through those corporate-controlled cultural apparatuses that mold our views of the world. The power to dominate the public is done not only through military force, but also through a corporate-controlled media empire that includes right-wing talk radio, social media, right-wing cable programs, and mainstream platforms that shape knowledge, dominate ideas, provide an emotional base, and filter and control the public discussion of major social issues. Right-wing media empires increasingly provide a culture, language, psychological space and melting pot of conspiracy ideas, all of which provide fertile soil for a fascist politics.
It is worth noting that the spread and resurgence of white supremacy and right-wing populist movements by radio hosts such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson signal the increased power of right-wing media and culture to promote the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of an ongoing attack on truth, rational discourse and enlightenment values. Rather than be dismissed as a source of entertainment or the rantings of fringe elements on the right, Carlson and a number of other Trump-aligned radio hosts provide confirmation of both the reconfiguration of the racial state, and the need for progressives to understand how issues of commonsense, culture, language and social media work to reproduce an upgraded form of fascist politics. As Amelia Mertha points out, “Spectacle is a necessary condition for white supremacy. When it does not manifest in covert forms, white supremacy is the most emphatic and twisted stage show of all.” The consumption and spectacle of Black pain and suffering has a long history in the United States, only now it does not draw large crowds to public lynchings but to media platforms such as right-wing talk shows and the internet.
Carlson has a huge audience with over 3 million viewers and has one of the highest rated and most watched cable news programs in the United States. Carlson and his reactionary counterparts flood media space with racist, anti-government and Trump-based lies. They hide the truth in the shadows of a poisonous spectacle. This is about more than the current assault on facts, evidence and truth. Fox News, Breitbart, Newsmax, One America News and other toxic cultural apparatuses represent a new front in the war to use social media to both depoliticize individuals and discredit critics that would oppose white supremacy and authoritarian nationalism. They also use music, online games, cartoons and videos not only as ideological props to recruit young people, but also as part of an appeal to community and a shared culture with its own language and sense of solidarity, with its false promise of solidarity through appeals to hatred, bigotry, antisemitism, misogyny and racism. As I have said elsewhere, this is the neoliberal dream machine where war, violence and politics have taken on a new disturbing form of urgency within image-based cultures. Violence is not merely reported, it is replayed, stoked for entertainment value, and its new currency is white supremacy ramped up in the service of a fascist politics led by the former president of the United States and his merry band of lackeys.
In sync with this new cultural movement, Trump’s Republican Party, militia groups, QAnon followers, online hate-filled communities and conspiracy theorists, Carlson’s public flirtation with right-wing violence prompted the conservative columnist Max Boot to claim that Carlson “is inciting violence and abetting terrorism. He hits a new low every time he takes to the airwaves.” This is language of the spectacle in the service of a right-wing Republican Party wedded to prospect of authoritarian rule at any cost.
Fascist politics works best amid the merging and constant repetition of ignorance, resentment and hatred. First, it destroys the truth, then the institutions that produce it, and finally anyone who cultivates and expresses critical ideas. Carlson’s presence in U.S. politics is crucial to understand because he is one of the prominent media personalities engaging in a successful politics of depoliticization by encouraging his audience to suspend their critical faculties. He floods the media with lies, promotes the fear of people of color, and produces a constant barrage of misrepresentations, such as his claim that immigrants are making the U.S. “poorer and dirtier.” He has defended the actions of 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two peaceful protesters participating in a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He has railed against the idea of diversity and pushed racist immigration narratives that make him a favorite on neo-Nazi websites such as The Daily Stormer.
Carlson openly touts “white replacement theory, which argues that “‘western’ identity is under siege by massive waves of immigration from non-European/non-white countries, resulting in a replacement of white European individuals via demographics,” as Judd Legum notes. Carlson calls white supremacy a hoax, and shamelessly defends replacement theory knowing full well that it was used as a rallying cry for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017. The march was organized by a motley crew of racist, antisemitic, heavily armed white nationalists and white supremacist groups, including neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Repeating slogans evoking “similar marches of Hitler Youth,” the marchers yelled, “Blood and soil!” “You will not replace us!” “Jews will not replace us!”
Carlson also denies the source of the violence that took place against the Capitol on January 6, 2021, retreating, Astead W. Herndon writes, “to the ranks of misinformation, claiming it was Black Lives Matter protesters and far-left groups like antifa who stormed the Capitol — in spite of the pro-Trump flags and QAnon symbology in the crowd.” Carlson’s lies function largely as permission to legitimate his white nationalist and racially inflammatory rhetoric. He uses language in the service of violence against immigrants, Black people and members of the left. Moreover, his embrace of right-wing violence is used in the service of authoritarianism and lawlessness while functioning to encourage a distrust, if not hatred, of justice, equality, social responsibility and democracy itself. Carlson and many of his media cohorts embrace the unfounded and disproven lie that the presidential election was stolen from Trump. As Michael Gerson observes, the spreading of such falsehoods in the name of cult-like loyalty to Trump may not be the “moral equivalent of fascist propaganda. But it serves the same political function. A founding lie is intended to remove followers from the messy world of facts and evidence. It is designed to replace critical judgment with personal loyalty. It is supposed to encourage distrust of every source of social authority opposed to the leader’s shifting will.”
Moreover, the spreading of the big lie in the age of Trumpism echoes the belief stated by the Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, that the bigger the lie, the easier it was to spread than a small one, and that if spread widely enough, the more like it would be believed. Not only is the most effective propaganda produced through the repetition and saturation of the big lie — evident in the millions who believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen — but it is the foundational element in spreading manufactured ignorance, empowering racist haters and legitimating white supremacy and a range of dangerous conspiracy theories.
Carlson, Trump and their acolytes do more than mark a break from reality; they undermine the formative cultures, civic institutions, and modes of empowering education necessary to equip people with the critical skills they need in order to recognize and resist authoritarian models of power. This fog of manufactured ignorance, reproduced through what Ruth Ben-Ghiat calls a “high-volume diffusion of falsehoods, partial truths, and conspiracy theories,” weakens the individual and society’s ability to resist the pernicious effects of such propaganda. Borrowing from Jason Stanley’s work on propaganda (How Propaganda Works), Carlson promotes a “flawed ideology” that legitimates the dehumanization of other groups while functioning as “barriers to rational thought and empathy that propaganda exploits.”
Carlson operates in the service of fascist agitation, and his aim is to unmoor language from critical reason, while turning politics into theater. He is symptomatic of the new face of fascist agitprop, ensuring that the media transform violence into a cheap spectacle. He has become the symbol of a tabloid politics emptied of social responsibility. Carlson’s racist babble testifies to the inflated relevance in the media eco-spheres of a political theatricality and performance that merges the politics hate with the razzle-dazzle associated with the tawdry underside of the entertainment industry. His racist and nativist dribble spread fascist myths about racial purity and cleansing while urging the faceless masses to buy into a “boiling primordial soup from which more developed and more dangerous forms of fascism might emerge.”
Trading in the politics of disposability, Carlson uses the media to promote what Etienne Balibar calls “production for elimination … of populations that … are already superfluous.” In this instance, an ideology forged in racist contempt, dehumanization and threat of death now functions “as a form of political and economic currency.” The public imagination is now in crisis. Radical uncertainty has turned lethal. In the current historical moment, the forms of pedagogical oppression that now circulate among so much of the right-wing media create ways of thinking and feeling that prey on the fears of the isolated, disenfranchised and powerless. These neoliberal forms of pedagogy substitute disillusionment and incoherence for a sense of comforting ignorance, the thrill of hyper-masculinity and the security that comes with the militarized unity of the obedient masses waging a war on democracy. The public imagination is formed through habits of daily life, but only for the better when such experiences are filtered through the ideals and promises of a democracy. This is no longer true. The concentration of power in the hands of a ruling elite has ensured that any notion of change regarding equality and justice is now tainted, if not destroyed, as a result of what Theodor Adorno called a retreat into apocalyptic bombast marked by “an organized flight of ideas.”
Violence in the United States has become a form of domestic terrorism; it is omnipresent and works through complex systems of symbolic and institutional control. As the famed artist Isaac Cordal observes, “We live in societies … that use fear in order to make people submissive…. Fear bends us [and makes us] vulnerable to its desires…. Our societies have been built on violence, and that heritage, that colonial hangover which is capitalism today still remains.” Under capitalism in its neoliberal fascistic form, the poverty of the civic and political imagination is taking its last breath.
Authoritarian societies do more than censor and subvert the truth, they also punish those who engage in dangerous thinking. The current plague of racism fueling neoliberal fascism is rooted not only in structural and economic forms of domination, but also intellectual and pedagogical forces, making clear that is education central to politics. It also points to the urgency of understanding that white supremacy is first and foremost a struggle over agency, assigned meanings and identity — over whose lives count and whose don’t. This is a politics that often leaves no traces when compared to the endless images of spectacularized violence that fills screen culture with mass shootings, police violence, and racist attacks on Black and Asian Americans in the post-Trump era. In an age when white supremacy is openly defended by both politicians and media celebrities, there is a price to be paid when power is held accountable. When critical ideas come to the surface, right-wing politicians and pundits attack the oppositional press as “an enemy of the American people,” attempt to impose a totalitarian notion of “patriotic education” and censor academics who criticize systemic abuses. In this instance, culture as a site of pedagogical influence has turned oppressive and must be addressed a site of struggle and resistance.
The U.S.’s slide into a fascist politics demands a revitalized understanding of the historical moment in which we find ourselves, along with a systemic critical analysis of the new political, cultural and pedagogical formations that marks this period. This suggests the need for a more comprehensive understanding of politics. Such connections hint at the educational and cultural power of a neoliberal corporate elite using their mainstream and social media platforms to shape pedagogically the collective consciousness of a nation in the discourse and relations of hate, bigotry, ignorance and conformity. Part of this challenge is to create a new language and social movement to address new and revitalized terrains of education, politics, justice, culture, and power that mark these new systems of racist violence and economic oppression.
The call for a socialist democracy demands the creation of those ideals, institutions, social relations and pedagogies of resistance that enable the public to imagine a life beyond a social order in which racial, class- and gender-based violence produce endless assaults on the environment, systemic police violence, a culture of ignorance and cruelty. This is also an assault on the public and civic imagination, mediated through the elevation of war, militarization, violent masculinity and the politics of disposability to the highest levels of power. Any viable pedagogy of resistance needs to create the educational and pedagogical tools to produce a radical shift in consciousness, capable of both recognizing the scorched-earth policies of neoliberal capitalism, and the twisted ideologies that support it.
We live in an era in which the distinction between the truth and misinformation is under attack. Ignorance has become a virtue, and education has become a tool of repression that elevates self-interest and privatization to a central organizing principle of both economics and politics. The socio-historical conditions that enable racism, systemic inequality, anti-intellectualism, mass incarceration, poverty, state violence and the war on youth must be remembered in the fight against that which now parades as ideologically normal. Historical memory and the demands of moral witnessing must become part of a deep grammar of political and pedagogical resistance in the fight against neoliberal capitalism and other forms of authoritarianism.
A pedagogy of resistance must be on the side of hope and civic courage in order to fight indifference, grave social injustices and mind-deadening attacks on the public imagination. At stake here is the struggle for a new world based on the notion that capitalism and democracy are not the same, and that we need to understand the world and how it functions in order to change it. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for a more comprehensive view of oppression and political struggle, it is crucial to connect his call to a radical restructuring of consciousness, values and society itself. King and other theorists such as Saskia Sassen call for a language “that functions as an ideological rupture that changes the nature of the debate.” This suggests more than simply a rhetorical challenge to the economic conditions that fuel neoliberal capitalism. There is also the need to move beyond abstract notions of structural violence and identify the visceral elements of violence that bear down on and “constrain agency through the hard surfaces of [everyday] life.”
Central to a pedagogy of resistance is the courage to think and take on the challenge of what kind of world we want — what kind of future we want to build for our children. This challenge demands the courage to develop an anti-capitalist consciousness as the basis for a call to action. Resistance is no longer an option; it has become the lifeline for democracy to be able to breathe again.